The Phoenix Checklist: How the CIA Defines Problems and Plans Solutions

Apr 19, 2021

The Phoenix Checklist provides context-free questions that enable you to look at a problem from many different angles. Sometimes, problems aren’t as easy to understand as they may seem at face value—especially problems that are inherently multi-faceted. These questions will help you clear ambiguities and pinpoint the unknown unknowns associated with a problem.


The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) developed this framework.


The Phoenix Checklist is comprised of two components:

  • A list of questions used to define problems
  • A list of questions to define the plan to solve the problems


Here is the Phoenix Checklist in its entirety:



  1. Why is it necessary to solve the problem?
  2. What benefits will you receive by solving the problem?
  3. What is the unknown?
  4. What is it you don’t yet understand?
  5. What is the information you have?
  6. Is the information sufficient? Or is it insufficient? Or redundant? Or contradictory?
  7. Where are the boundaries of the problem?
  8. What isn’t the problem?
  9. Should you draw a diagram of the problem? A figure?
  10. Can you separate the various parts of the problem? Can you write them down? What are the relationships of the parts of the problem? What are the constants of the problem?
  11. Have you seen this problem before?
  12. Have you seen this problem in a slightly different form? Do you know a related problem?
  13. Try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown.
  14. Suppose you find a problem related to yours that has already been solved. Can you use it? Can you use its method?
  15. Can you restate your problem? How many different ways can you restate it? More general? More specific? Can the rules be changed?
  16. What are the best, worst and most probable cases you can imagine?



  1. Can you solve the whole problem? Part of the problem?
  2. What would you like the resolution to be? Can you picture it?
  3. How much of the unknown can you determine?
  4. Can you derive something useful from the information you have?
  5. Have you used all the information?
  6. Have you taken into account all essential notions in the problem?
  7. Can you separate the steps in the problem-solving process? Can you determine the correctness of each step?
  8. What creative thinking techniques can you use to generate ideas? How many different techniques?
  9. Can you see the result? How many different kinds of results can you see?
  10. How many different ways have you tried to solve the problem?
  11. What have others done?
  12. Can you intuit the solution? Can you check the result?
  13. What should be done? How should it be done?
  14. Where should it be done?
  15. When should it be done?
  16. Who should do it?
  17. What do you need to do at this time?
  18. Who will be responsible for what?
  19. Can you use this problem to solve some other problem?
  20. What are the unique set of qualities that makes this problem what it is and none other?
  21. What milestones can best mark your progress?
  22. How will you know when you are successful?


Phoenix Checklist

In addition to the Phoenix Checklist, here are some other questions to aid with the problem definition and solving process:


  1. Are there other paths to the end I’m looking for? Write down the obvious way to get from where you are to where you want to go. Then ignore it. Come up with as many other paths as you can think of for getting there.
  2. Can I change any of the variables? List all the variables you see (how much time it takes, who is involved, whether to do something yourself or hire someone to do it, etc.) and play with changing them. What effect could that have?
  3. What information do I need? Sometimes problems exist because we don’t have enough information to solve them. Identifying what information you need and what information you’re missing gives you a starting point to change that.
  4. How many solutions can I come up with? As you think of more solutions to a problem, you may increase the likelihood of thinking of one that is optimally effective.
  5. How would ______ solve this? If there is someone who is known for solving things like this, ask yourself how they would solve it. What unique perspectives would that person have that would enable them to solve the problem?
  6. How many problems am I encountering here? There are many situations where what seems like one problem is actually a variety of problems bundled together. When you are trying to solve more than one problem at any given time, you are making things far more difficult than they need to be. Instead, take the time to identify each individual problem that you are facing. Tackle one problem at a time and then move onto the next.
  7. What seem to be your main obstacles to reaching the goal? Think of getting from where you are to where you want to go as a process flow. Map out a step-by-step ideal process flow of how you could get there. Then look at that process and identify the obstacles. Where are those obstacles?
  8. How can I improve this process? Instead of looking at it from a problem perspective, look at it as a process improvement exercise. What steps and processes can you make easier and faster to perform? How would you accomplish this?
  9. Who has done this before? If someone else has already invented the wheel, don’t bang your head bloody trying to create it again. Who else has been up against the problem you’re encountering? Can you talk to them? Read about how they approached it.
  10. How could ____ relate to my problem? What are some concepts that you could associate with the challenge that would most likely produce useful connections and insights?





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